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John Laurens and Hamilton: A Closer Look, Part 3
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Today we’re going to conclude the story of John Laurens, a Charleston native who’s one of the principal characters in Act One of the hit Broadway musical, Hamilton. In our last episode, we picked up with John Laurens at the Battle of Monmouth in the summer of 1778 and followed John’s career through his duel with General Charles Lee, his efforts to raise a battalion of black soldiers in South Carolina in 1779, the British capture of Charleston in 1780, his diplomatic mission to France in early 1781, and his return just in time to participate with his old friends, Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, and of course General George Washington at the siege of Yorktown in October 1781.
When we left our brave band of soldiers, Lt. Colonels Laurens and Hamilton had led the American capture of British redoubt No. 10, and a day later the British guns fell silent. If we turn to Ron Chernow’s best-selling biography of Hamilton, page 164, we read the following sentence: “A red-coated drummer boy appeared on the parapet, followed by an officer flapping a white handkerchief. The guns fell silent. Cornwallis had surrendered.” But that’s not what happened. There was no boy or handkerchief, but rather a regimental drummer and a standard white flag, the customary military signal for the desire for a parley; that is, a temporary cease-fire and negotiation. Cornwallis hadn’t yet surrendered; he was merely expressing his desire to open a conversation about the future of the engagement. Chernow can be excused because he’s a biographer, not a military historian, so it doesn’t really matter if his depiction of the scene is a little naive. But Chernow’s words from this scene were lifted directly into the musical, Hamilton, and now lots of folks have a misguided notion of the 1781 surrender at Yorktown.
For fans of John Laurens, and South Carolina readers in general, it’s also unfortunate that Mr. Chernow completely passed over the details of the British and American negotiations that preceded the actual surrender at Yorktown. Between the 17th and 19th of October, 1781, John Laurens was the American spokesman at these meetings, which was a significant honor for the twenty-six-year-old officer. In what appears to have been a bit of intentional irony, General Washington selected Laurens as his representative because Laurens had been present at the humiliating American surrender of Charleston, and Washington instructed Laurens to demand the same surrender terms that the British had imposed on the American forces at Charleston. In eighteenth-century European warfare, it was customary for surrendering troops to retire from the battlefield with their flags waving, swords drawn, and their musicians playing a tune from the victor’s country as a tribute to their bravery. It was all supposed to be very polite and genteel. At the surrender of Charleston in May 1780, however, the British ordered the American troops to retire with flags furled, swords at their sides, and they were barred from playing a British tune. Back in Yorktown in October 1781, John Laurens, on behalf of General Washington, dictated the terms of surrender to the British. They would retire from the battlefield with flags furled, swords in their scabbards, and their musicians were not to play and American or French tune. The British negotiators were insulted by these demands, of course, but they recognized it was an American twist of irony, a sort of payback for the humiliating terms given at Charleston just a year earlier.
But Mr. Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton doesn’t mention any of this American payback at Yorktown, and neither does Miranda’s musical, Hamilton. Instead, both the book and the musical launch directly from the cease-fire to the surrender ceremony two days later. Chernow says, page 165, “Tens of thousands of onlookers gaped in amazement as the shattered British troops marched out of Yorktown, to the tune of an old English ballad, ‘The World Turned Upside Down.’” In the musical Hamilton, Chernow’s sentence appears, nearly word for word, near the end of Act One, in a number called, appropriately, “Yorktown (the World Turned Upside Down).” But there’s just one problem with this simple text. It’s not true. It’s dramatic and it’s exciting, but it didn’t happen—at least not the way Chernow and Miranda have depicted it.
There are actually two major historical problems with the sentence in question. First, both the biography and the musical about Hamilton state that “tens of thousands” of civilian onlookers witnessed the British surrender at Yorktown. Really? Have you ever been to Yorktown, Virginia? It’s just a village today, with a population of less than 200 people, but it was bit bigger in the 1780s. In the census of 1790, there were 661 people living in the Town of York, and only 5,233 in all of York County, Virginia. During the weeks of siege warfare in October 1781, the local non-combatants skedaddled to safer ground. Even if most—or even all—of those folks bravely scurried back to Yorktown to witness the British surrender on October 19th, there could not have been “tens of thousands of onlookers,” as Chernow tells us. It’s true that both the British and American camps included the wives and children of many soldiers, enslaved laborers, and free blacks looking for work, but the sum total of all these non-combatants still falls way short of his estimate of “tens of thousands.”
Secondly, and more problematically, both Chernow’s biography and Miranda’s musical perpetuate the myth of the tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.” That’s right, it’s a myth. There is no such tune. In fact, the name of the tune or tunes played by the British army at Yorktown on October 19th 1781 are not recorded or mentioned in any known source, nor is there any known credible eyewitness account of the music played on that day. Yes, it is true that you’ll find mention of the tune called “The World Turned Upside Down” in hundreds of books about the American Revolution, and it’s even true that you can find modern recordings of Revolutionary-era music that include a tune with that title. Actually, you’ll find several different tunes with that title on various recordings, because historians have been struggling for years to identify the correct melody to match that title. But it’s all in vain because the story is wrong, or at least un-credible. How do we know this? Because the first mention of a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down” being played at Yorktown appeared in print 47 years after the famous surrender, in a publication authored by a man who was not present at Yorktown in 1781. The legend of the tune called “The World Turned Upside Down” was first published by Major Alexander Garden of Charleston, in his second volume of Anecdotes of the American Revolution, published here in 1828. Garden was a few years younger than John Laurens, and the two were friends, but Major Garden was nowhere near Yorktown, Virginia in 1781, and he didn’t claim to have been there. In his book of anecdotes, Garden presents a narrative of the surrender of at Yorktown written by his friend, Major William Jackson, the same man who had served as secretary to John Laurens in his diplomatic mission to France in the first half of 1781. But Jackson wasn’t present at the Yorktown surrender either. Rather, he was still in France, and didn’t return to the United States until later in 1782, and Jackson never saw Laurens again. Both Garden and Jackson lived into the 1820s, and it appears that one of these men invented the romanticized notion that the British army played a tune with the ironic name of “The World Turned Upside Down.”
In the late twentieth century, a musicologist named Arthur Schrader spent many years combing through eighteenth-century music archives and publication in search of the tune in question. While he found a few suggestive “maybes,” he never found “the” tune. In fact, he found that tunes called “The World Turned Upside Down” started appearing in print after 1828, when Alexander Garden published William Jackson’s narrative of the Yorktown surrender. You can read Mr. Schrader’s findings in the summer 1998 volume of the journal, American Music, if you’re interested, but here’s the bottom line: The surrender march of the British army at Yorktown in October 1781 lasted for a few hours, and the regimental musicians no doubt played dozens and dozens of tunes on the day, but not a single eyewitness wrote down any of the names of those tunes. That is to say, there was nothing remarkable, or ironic, or noteworthy about the music performed on that day. Nevertheless, the idea of the British playing a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down” at Yorktown makes for a good story, and that’s all that really matters for a musical like Hamilton. Too bad the story’s a piece of fiction that will now be perpetuated for a few more generations.
For Alexander Hamilton and many Americans in the northern states, the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781 was the end of the Revolutionary War. Shortly after the battle, Hamilton resigned his commission in the Continental Army, returned to his wife and child in Albany, New York, and commenced the study of law to start a new, civilian career. Accordingly, Ron Chernow’s biography and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical follow Hamilton’s lightning-quick transition from soldier at Yorktown to family man in Albany, leaving the war and John Laurens far behind. But that’s not an accurate representation of the facts, either. The American victory at the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781 ended the British dream of crushing the colonial rebellion, but it was not the end of the war for our independence. Most Americans don’t realize that after the surrender at Yorktown, British forces were still in control of South Carolina and Georgia, and still held New York City. There were no major battles in the aftermath of Yorktown, but there were many skirmishes, and soldiers were still dying. In the weeks after the American victory in October 1781, General Washington returned to Philadelphia to work with Congress, and John Laurens returned to South Carolina. John wasn’t retiring from combat, however. Rather, he transferred to the staff of General Nathanael Greene, the commander of the Continental Army in the south, whose headquarters was several miles outside of British-held Charleston.
By the end of 1781, British forces in South Carolina were shrinking and retreating toward the coastline. It now seemed inevitable that the British would eventually withdraw from the state completely, but they were in no rush. Inspired by the American success at Yorktown, Governor John Rutledge called for fresh elections for the South Carolina legislature, and in December 1781 John Laurens was again elected to represent urban Charleston. Since the British army still controlled Charleston, the legislature assembled in January 1782 at the village of Jacksonboro, on the banks of the Edisto River. During the short session of what has become known as the Jacksonboro Assembly of 1782, one of the most pressing topics facing our legislature was the need to fill up the state regiments of the Continental Army, which were perpetually undermanned. Newly-elected Governor John Mathews offered a plan to draft hundreds of enslaved men to serve as laborers, in order to free up hundreds of white men to shoulder weapons. Another plan that garnered more support was to take possession of slaves confiscated from loyalists in South Carolina and offer one slave to each new white recruit as a signing bonus. But John Laurens had a different plan, of course. While the legislature was debating the plan to distribute slaves from confiscated estates in early February 1782, Laurens stood before his colleagues offered a very different idea. He proposed a motion “for collecting two thousand five hundred Negroes forthwith from the Confiscated Estates,—embodying and organizing them under white officers.” This was John Laurens’ last-ditch-effort to raise the black regiment that he had been dreaming of for at least four years. After an overnight recess, the South Carolina House of Representatives considered his motion on the morning of February 5th. Following a brief debate, of which no record survives, a vote was called, and Laurens’s proposal to form a black regiment of soldiers was again, and finally, defeated.
The brief legislative assembly at Jacksonboro concluded in February 1782, and Lt. Colonel John Laurens returned to his military duties under General Nathanael Greene. At that time, the British forces in South Carolina were in complete control of Charleston and its environs, but their influence in the rest of the state was shrinking rapidly. American and British soldiers kept a wary eye on each other at the British withdrew to the coastline. Feathers were ruffled at the slightest provocation, and partisan militiamen loyal to the British were terrorizing some parts of the state. In May of 1782, General Alexander Leslie, in command of the British in Charleston, proposed to negotiate a cease-fire agreement with General Greene; but Greene declined to participate in such negotiations because he had no instructions from the Continental Congress on the matter. And so the stalemate continued.
In the meantime, General Greene instructed John Laurens to gather intelligence on British movements and activities in and around Charleston. In other words, John Laurens was the leader of spy ring, recruiting moles, meeting secretly with operatives, and gathering information relevant to the biggest mystery of that day: is the British army going to evacuate Charleston or not? If they are planning to leave, when, and how much illegal booty are they going to try to take away with them? British forces had plundered and looted property all over the Lowcountry and in urban Charleston over the past several years, so tensions were high as the end of the war drew near.
At the beginning of August 1782, the British authorities in Charleston announced that they would soon evacuate the city. They offered no timetable of the move, and the process dragged on for a further four months, finally ending with a massive push on December 14th 1782. The end was in sight, but the war was not officially over. Three weeks after the British announced their imminent withdrawal from South Carolina, twenty-seven-year-old Lt. Colonel John Laurens was killed in a skirmish near Combahee Ferry, about forty miles west of Charleston. In the musical Hamilton, the news of John’s death is delivered in the final scene of Act One, called “Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us.” In this somber scene, the stage is split to represent two different times and places. On one side we see the character of John Laurens, who delivers these lines: “I may not live to see our glory / But I’ll gladly join the fight / And when our children tell our story / They’ll tell the story of tonight. / Tomorrow there’ll be more of us.” On the other side of the stage, we see Alexander Hamilton working at a desk in his home. His wife, Eliza, enters with news. There’s a letter from the father of John Laurens. Alexander asks Eliza to read the letter aloud, and here’s what she reads: “On Tuesday the 27th, Lt. Col. John Laurens was killed in a gunfight against British troops in South Carolina. These troops had not yet received word from Yorktown that the war was over. He’s buried here until his family can send for his remains. As you may know, Lt. Col. Laurens was engaged in recruiting three thousand men for the first all-black military regiment. The surviving members of this regiment have been returned to their masters.”
While it is true that John Laurens was killed in a skirmish with British troops in South Carolina on the 27th of August 1782, the rest of this dialog is nonsense. The notion that British troops in South Carolina had not heard the news of the Battle of Yorktown, some ten months earlier, and that the war was in fact over, is all naive fiction. John’s dream of forming a black regiment never materialized, so of course there were no enslaved soldiers to be returned to their masters. And finally, Henry Laurens could not have written such a letter to Alexander Hamilton in 1782 because the elder Laurens had just been released from the Tower of London, and he didn’t hear about his son’s death until much later.
If you pick up a book about the history of the American Revolution in South Carolina, you’ll probably find a brief mention of the death of John Laurens, with brief story that goes something like this: John was sick in his bed with a fever, when he heard news of British soldiers foraging for rice along the Combahee River. Acting against orders, he led a small band of men to the site, where the two sides engaged in a short skirmish. Laurens was shot and died shortly afterwards. It was a tragic loss for the American side, in a senseless, unnecessary engagement so close to the end of the war. But that short summary of his death isn’t very accurate either. While it is true that the death of John Laurens in late August 1782 was a tragic loss, the circumstances of that skirmish are far more subtle and interesting, and much more significant than most people realize. Let me try to summarize the real story, and you’ll see what I mean.
At the beginning of August 1782, both the British and American forces in South Carolina knew that the war was practically over, and that the British army would be evacuating soon. We must remember, however, that the British were still at war with France, because France had joined the American side in early 1778. So while the British were withdrawing troops and resources from the United States in 1782, they were preparing to redeploy those troops and resources against the French in the West Indies. Troops need to eat, so the British army in the Lowcountry of South Carolina was trying to stockpile rice for their upcoming campaign against the French. The French were our Allies, of course, because without the assistance of the French army and navy, we wouldn’t have been able to win our War for Independence. So in August of 1782, British troops in the Lowcountry weren’t just foraging for a bit of rice because they were hungry, they were attempting to confiscate huge quantities of rice—thousands of barrels of rice ready for export—to feed British soldiers in the West Indies. In order to protect our allies, the French, the American troops in the Lowcountry, like Lt. Colonel John Laurens, were doing everything in their power to prevent the British army from securing provisions that might feed troops destined to fight against the French.
So on August 25th, when the American command near Charleston learned of a large party of British soldiers, and British schooners, confiscating rice from plantations near Combahee Ferry, hundreds of soldiers sprang into action. John Laurens, who was ill with a fever, gathered a small band of men and headed toward the Combahee River to rendezvous with a larger contingent of American soldiers. Laurens and his men made camp at a place called Chehaw neck, a short distance from the Combahee, near what is today the Donnelley Wildlife Preserve on Highway 17 in Colleton County. On the evening of August 26th Laurens and some of his men travelled to the nearby plantation of the Stock family and had a pleasant dinner. About three in the morning of the 27th, Laurens set out on the dark road back to Chehaw Neck, unaware that about 150 British soldiers had floated downstream and then come up the road to Chehaw Neck, waiting for Laurens. Shortly before dawn, Laurens and his men walked into a dark ambush, and had only a moment to determine their next move. Should they scatter and wait for reinforcements, or should they stand and fight? Ever the fearless leader, John Laurens made a split-second decision to stand his ground, and ordered his men to attack. Facing a much larger force, however, the Americans didn’t stand a chance. The first volley of British musket fire brought Laurens to the ground. Successive volleys mowed down several other Americans, and the rest of the small detachment scattered in confusion. Twenty-seven-year-old Lt. Colonel John Laurens died on the morning of August 27th 1782, on a forgotten dirt road between the Chehaw River and Combahee River. He was buried initially at the nearby Stock Plantation, where he had eaten his last meal. Some years later, his remains were moved to his family’s home at Mepkin Plantation, on the Cooper River, and re-interred beside his father, Henry, who died in 1792. Mepkin Plantation is now Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery that’s open to visitors, just in case you’d like to visit the final resting place of the brave, misunderstood John Laurens.
Finally, I’d like to end this program with a touching description of John Laurens, written by one of his own friends, and brother-in-law. Dr. David Ramsay was a few years older than John, and served in the army and in the South Carolina legislature during the Revolution. In 1787, Dr. Ramsay wed John’s younger sister, Martha, and they had a long and happy marriage. In 1809 Ramsay published a detailed history of South Carolina, in which he included the following moving tribute to his long lost friend:
“Nature had adorned [John Laurens] with a profusion of her choicest gifts, to which a well conducted education had added its most useful as well as its most elegant improvements. Though his fortune and family entitled him to pre-eminence, yet he was the warm friend of republican equality. Generous and liberal, his heart expanded with genuine philanthropy. Zealous for the rights of humanity, he contended that personal liberty was the birth right of every human being, however diversified by country, color, or capacity. His insinuating address won the hearts of all his acquaintances; his sincerity and virtue secured their lasting esteem. Acting from the most honorable principles—uniting the bravery and other talents of a great officer with the knowledge of a complete scholar, and the engaging manners of a well bred gentleman, he was the idol of his country, the glory of the army, and an ornament of human nature. His abilities shone in the legislature and in the cabinet as well as in the field, and were equal to the highest stations. His admiring country, sensible of his rising merit, stood prepared to confer on him her most distinguished honors. Cut down in the midst of all these prospects, he has left mankind to deplore the calamities of war, which, in the twenty-seventh year of his life, deprived society of so invaluable a citizen.”
If you’d like to learn more about John Laurens and his brief, adventurous career, head to your local library or bookstore and grab a copy of Gregory Massey’s book, John Laurens and the American Revolution, which was published by the University of South Carolina Press in the year 2000. And if you’re fortunate enough to get a ticket to see the musical, Hamilton, I hope you’ll spread the word about the real story of John Laurens.
 Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (Penguin Press, 2004), 164–65.
 See Alexander Garden, Anecdotes of the American Revolution, Illustrative of the Talents and Virtues of the Heroes and Patriots, Who Acted the Most Conspicuous Parts Therein. Second Series (Charleston, S.C.: A. E. Miller, 1828), 17–18 ; Arthur Schrader, “‘The World Turned Upside Down’: A Yorktown March, or Music to Surrender By,” American Music 16 (Summer 1998): 180–216.
 A. S. Salley Jr., ed., Journal of the House of Representatives of South Carolina, January 8, 1782–February 26, 1782 (Columbia: The State Company for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1916), 56. The surviving journal of the House does not mention the original motion on 4 February. See also Gregory D. Massey, John Laurens and the American Revolution (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000), 207–8.
 See William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, So Far As It Related to the States of North and South Carolina, and Georgia, volume 2 (New York: D. Longworth, 1802), 339.
 See Moultrie, Memoirs, 2: 342; Massey, John Laurens, 226–27.
 David Ramsay, The History of South Carolina, from Its First Settlement in 1670, to the Year 1808 (Charleston, S.C.: David Longsworth, 1809), 1: 438–39.